Jeremy Nathan Tisser has been in the music game in many ways over the last few years, serving in various capacities on shows like Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Beware the Batman, as well as films like Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, The Damned, and most recently, the box office smash hit Jurassic World. He has also been stepping out more on his own, composing for films like Actor for Hire and games like Epic Cat Runner. He has recently won his second Hollywood Music in Media Award for his work with Mark Watters on the TV show Composers on Composing.
Hello Jeremy! Thank you very much for this opportunity to chat with you. First off, congratulations on recently winning your second Hollywood Music in Media Award for the theme you wrote with Mark Watters for the TV series Composers on Composing. Kind of meta, really! Are you still buzzing?
Thank you! I definitely am still buzzing. Mark basically wrote the music to my childhood (Bonkers, Goof Troop, Animaniacs, ’96 and ’02 Olympics, Aladdin movie sequels, and tons more), so to have the opportunity to study with, work for, and eventually co-write a TV theme with Mark, let alone share an award with him, is absolutely incredible!
What’s the nature of your role composing for Composers on Composing? Was it just the theme music that you and Mark worked on, or are you involved in providing original music for the rest of the show as well? Did you face any moments of hilarious irony in working on it?
Well, the show itself is about various composers who come from the rock music world, who transitioned into film and television scoring. That being said, each episode features music from the band that said composer was in. Episode one features Steve Porcaro, so most of the music throughout the show is from the band Toto, for example. That was basically the long way of saying that Mark and I just wrote the theme!
Your story often includes references to your relatively young age, and how it is inversely proportional to your tremendous talent. It is, of course, a story that comes with acutely observant parents, fantastic mentors, and a little drummer boy who never seemed to lose his passion or excitement for music over the years, so it almost seems inevitable that you would be where you are now and only keep rising. How do you personally reflect on your journey?
I think it’s absolutely amazing how life just seems to work itself out! As a kid, before I became serious about music, I actually wanted to be an actor. My Bar Mitzvah was Hollywood themed, and we had donation baskets at every table to give to charity that included popcorn, movies, movie tickets, and other movie items. Of course, I was never a good actor, but music always seemed to stick around. Yet looking back, I never in a million years would’ve dreamed that I could be writing my own music for movies, let alone television or video games. I have no doubt that in 10 more years, I’ll be looking back at this moment thinking about how my life will have changed yet again.
You built your career working on various aspects of music production for film and television, including music editing, music assisting, orchestrating, and music preparation on a diverse range of projects, most recently including Jurassic World. How have these quests helped your main storyline as a composer?
To me, each one of these experiences was just a stepping stone to take towards following my dreams. You can’t pass up an opportunity to learn just because it may not involve writing music. For me, each of those opportunities was an insight into the full scoring process.
For example on a film like Jurassic World, Michael Giacchino writes the score. However, he writes his music in a sequencing software where the music looks like colourful bars on a grid. That information has to get translated into a score. In order for this to happen, the file gets sent to the orchestrator who has to convert the technological information into a notated piece of music, which is a tedious and at times length process. After orchestration, the score goes to the music preparation team, which can easily consist of 12-15 people. Their jobs are to create the parts out of the score for all of the musicians in the orchestra. Then the parts get double-checked, triple-checked and finalized, and lastly printed, taped and delivered to the scoring stage. While the orchestration and copying are being done, you have a music editor who is taking the composer’s sequencing sessions and creating Pro Tools sessions from them for every single cue.
For me, by working each one of these jobs, I learned how much time they all take to complete, and I was able to ask all of the questions I never even thought to ask. Composers often times think “I just have to write the music and send it off when I’m ready, and it’ll magically appear at the scoring stage.” For me, being a composer is about being a team leader. I have to make sure I give my team members enough time to do their jobs properly.
That’s only one answer though to your question. The other side of the coin is that I was able to watch composers not only write music, but interact with producers and directors. I could learn how they handled deadlines, and again ask the questions I didn’t even know needed answering. But I was also able to study scores. Working for Mark Watters was the prime example for me. He answered every question I had, no matter how stupid it may have seemed, and he always let me dig through his scores at his studio while I was waiting for him to send me more studio tasks to work on. We even sat at his piano and studied The Asteroid Field cue from Star Wars Episode V together at one point, because we wanted to see how the brass was voiced at a certain part. But all of these experiences have contributed to the composer I am today, and will continue to contribute to my path tomorrow.
You’re no stranger to writing for video games, and your other nomination in 2015 was for your soundtrack to the delightful mobile game Epic Cat Runner. It is a mix of orchestral jazz, big bang arrangements, and even some electronica. What was the process that led to that fun combination of results?
Actually, this game had quite a bit of discussion. I first met Ric Zhang (one of the creators of the game) while I was at the University of Southern California (USC) working on Project Holodeck (now called Survios). Ric and I, along with Ric’s business partner Brian Youn, had a few Skype sessions where we would send each other Youtube examples, pictures, and other things to draw inspiration from. In the end, Ric and Brian decided that there would be 3 difficulty levels (easy, medium, and hard), and each difficulty would have its own backdrop. Easy would take place in the country, Medium would be the city, and Hard would be Tokyo. So they said they wanted J-Pop music for the Tokyo portion, and they wanted a Tom & Jerry vibe for the main theme. I came up with the ideas for country music and big band, because those are the genres I think of when I think of the countryside and big city. I originally had a kazoo melody in the country tune, but it ended up being a little bit over the top.
What can you tell us about your music and your process creating the score for film, Actor for Hire?
This was a fun process! Marcus Mizelle (the director) is a man who understands storytelling better than most people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Normally when trying to get music approved, the composer has to mock up each individual cue with pre-recorded samples in order to mimic what a final recording might sound like. However, with jazz, especially a quartet where each instrument is completely exposed, it is next to impossible to get the mockup sounding right. So instead of creating mockups, I printed out 3 versions of the theme I wrote: minor mode, major mode, and a 5/4 time signature version in minor mode. I called over the four musicians to my parents’ guest house and put the music in front of them. We recorded about fifteen versions of the theme from those three lead sheets (bossa nova, straight rock, swing, clarinet melody, saxophone melody, flute solos, etc). I chopped the music up and gave it to Marcus, who then replaced all of the temp music with these recorded cues. I then created intros and outros, changed keys, and finessed each cue so it would fit the scene better, and if there was a scene that wasn’t working well musically, I would write a completely new cue. It was such a blast being able to spend 2 months actually working with live musicians rather than just sitting behind my desk creating mockups. Of course, once the music was finalized and approved by Marcus, we went to The Bridge Recording in Glendale, CA, and recorded the final version of the score that you hear in the film.
You’ve been able to work on a wide variety of projects in a great range of genres. Is there anything you are yet to tackle, or can’t wait for the chance to take on?
I’ve already worked on fantasy/adventure projects, but honestly, those are my favorites. To be able to score a Harry Potter, or a Star Wars, or a Hook would be a dream come true for me. Also, even though I’ve done a bit of work in the animation world, I have yet to score an animated feature. So that is another avenue I am very much looking forward to one day tackling.
What’s in your creative space that you can’t imagine living or working on music without? I suspect at least a drum kit or two?
I actually do have two drum kits that I record myself on whenever possible! But the one thing I really couldn’t work without is my piano. I find that I can write my best music when I’m away from the computer, sitting in front of my piano with a sketchpad, a pencil, and a straightedge. I find that it frees the mind, and allows me to use my imagination more in order to create something truly magical. Sadly, in today’s world, there isn’t enough time to sit by a piano and handwrite. Mockups take quite a while to create, so it becomes faster to write directly into the sequencing software. However, I still use my piano to work out chord progressions, voicings, and melodies.
As your schedule gets busier and busier working on projects with higher stakes, do you have any strategies to help counteract the sometimes insane nature of this job, and keep your life somewhat balanced?
The irony of this question is that I am answering this question at 11:30 pm, after a long day that consisted of meeting with a director for 2 hours in the morning, followed by 6 hours of working on a new video game score. Does that answer the question? Ha!
In all seriousness, it’s really just a matter of forcing yourself to set a time every night to close shop. Of course, as the deadline approaches, that time gets pushed later and later. But I think this is an issue that composers around the world struggle with. Music is our lives, and inspiration can happen anywhere at any time. However I believe that it is important to make time for family and friends, but even more so for yourself.
One thing that helps me is having television shows that I enjoy watching (and there is a plethora of those nowadays), and setting them to record so that I can have something to look forward to watching at night while I unwind.
Many thanks to Ashley Moore of the Krakower Group for helping make this interview happen.